A Doncaster rail line – is this really what the Greens stand for?

In my last post about the Green’s election manifesto, a Public transport plan for Melbourne’s east, I indicated I would take a closer look at the two new rail lines the party is proposing to finance – a line to Rowville and a line to Doncaster – with its nonexistent $6 billion.

I discussed the shortcomings of the Rowville line a few months ago when the Liberals also came out in favour of it (is there a winnable seat in the vicinity perhaps?), so here I’ll just concern myself with the proposed Doncaster line.

The Greens say a line is needed because Manningham is the only municipality in Melbourne without either a train line or a tram line. And they say a rail line was promised before – plans were drawn up in 1969 but never acted on.

I’m not impressed by this logic. Do we spend billions of dollars on infrastructure because some area is “entitled” to a track even if it’s not the best solution? Should we get the 1969 freeway plan because it’s a “broken” promise too?

I’d be more impressed if the Greens had provided some justification, but they haven’t. There’s no attempt to measure expected patronage and no indication of the possible economic benefits compared to other potential investments. Nor is there any indication of the annual operating cost and the ongoing subsidy that the line would require.

The proposal is that the line would run from the CBD via a tunnel under Carlton and Fitzroy to Victoria Park station on the Hurstbridge-Epping line. It would then run along the median of the Eastern Freeway (which was designed from the outset to take a rail line) until 1.5 km east of Bulleen Rd. At that point it would run underground to a new station at Doncaster.

There are some very serious questions that need to be asked about this proposal.

First: Why build a new rail line that would largely benefit middle and upper income households when the outer suburbs are far worse off in terms of public transport supply? As pointed out here, Manningham is a pretty comfortable area. Yet the Greens are also proposing in the same election package to extend the No. 48 tram line from North Balwyn to Doncaster.

The proposal also involves constructing new underground stations at Fitzroy, Carlton and Parkville. Just why these sorts of upper income inner city areas, which are already very well connected to the city centre by trams, justify this level of expenditure ahead of other parts of Melbourne, is not explained.

Second: Does it really make sense to spend billions replacing an existing high quality public transport system with another more expensive one? The Greens ignore the recently launched Doncaster Area Rapid Transit (DART) SmartBus service.

Four DART city routes and two orbital routes provide a 15 minute bus service during the day (7-10 minutes in the peak) and 30 minutes in the evening and on weekends. This is better than I get on the Hurstbridge line! The DART system also serves a much larger catchment than a single station could. Under the Greens plan, travellers will have to drive or take a bus to the new Doncaster station and then change to a train for the second leg of their trip.

Third: What is the sense of building a 12.5 km rail line from Victoria Park to serve effectively just one major station i.e. Doncaster? Yes, intermediate stations are envisaged at Chandler Hwy, Burke Rd and Bulleen Rd, but they would be located in the centre of the freeway.

A glance at the Melway shows they would all be a considerable distance from the nearest substantial body of housing. This is the antithesis of good transit design which seeks to minimise walk distances. There is also little chance of fostering any significant transit-oriented development around them. In other words there’s nothing “on the way”.

Fourth: Would the level of patronage justify heavy rail? The Greens don’t estimate the number of users, all they say is that the City of Manningham has 118,000 residents and no rail line.

I doubt that this is enough to justify a rail line given the high cost of retrofitting infrastructure in built up areas. Only 10% of Manningham travellers currently journey to the City of Melbourne on a typical weekday (all purposes, all modes) and only 3% on a weekend day. Some of them might use the proposed new tram instead, diluting patronage on both.

Public transport supply rating by area

Fifth: Is there actually a public transport problem in Manningham compared to other areas? This study of public transport supply across Melbourne (see map) suggests that not only is Manningham very well off compared to the outer suburbs, it does as well as most other middle suburbs that have a rail line. And the study pre-dates the new DART system.

Of course the residents of Manningham would be better off if they had a new rail line and new tram line. But the key priority should be to provide public transport where it will yield the largest social, environmental and economic benefits. On the face of it, the outer suburbs would seem to have a much stronger claim than Manningham.

I commend the Greens for identifying the need for unglamorous improvements like triplications and maintenance, but it’s a pity that clarity is undone by promoting proposals like this one. This looks like someone’s playing trains rather than working at really improving public transport.

So far as Manningham is concerned, a better plan would be to give buses greater priority over cars and trucks on the Eastern freeway and inner city road system, especially at peak times.

13 Comments on “A Doncaster rail line – is this really what the Greens stand for?”

  1. The reason for building the train line along the highway is simple. It’s the only place left to build it short of digging a tunnel the entire way there, which of course would be even less justified than the current plan.

    Secondly, the DART service may be far better than the previous bus services, but it is still limited by capacity. Heavy rail will allow (and encourage) future passenger growth and increased density in the area serviced.

    Not building rail because of currently low demand is flawed logic. Why is it that so few residents in Manningham travel to the CBD? Is this percentage lower than other suburbs that are serviced by rail?

    You have incorrectly claimed the Greens have not explained why they want to build train stations in inner suburbs. This is explained very clearly in their plan. There are a few reasons given: to start creating a true metro that is not based on the current hub and spoke design which will help alleviate PT congestion in the CBD and create more capacity across the entire network as well as providing a more cohesive network; and to increase the mode share of PT for people travelling into the inner suburbs, as whilst these suburbs do generate a lot of trips, only a fraction of them are made by PT, especially compared to the CBD.

    • Apologies, I’ve just realised you are talking about the Greens ‘Public Transport Plan for Melbourne’s East’, whilst I’ve been looking at the ‘The People’s Plan’ which might explain why you have not read the explanation for building new train stations in the inner suburbs. The reasoning is indeed covered in The People’s Plan.

      I haven’t had the chance to read the report you’re discussing, however a lot of the ideas are proposed in The People’s Plan.

    • Alan Davies says:

      There’s no sense in building a rail line in a poor location like a freeway median just because that’s your only option. It should be a signal that you need to think innovativly about other approaches.

      DART has more than enough capacity to handle demand for a long time to come yet, especially with some relatively low cost improvements like higher priority on roads.

      You don’t make the sorts of massive investments required to retrofit a rail line until the patronage level is very high. That’s a reason why it’s often described as mass transit.

      Manningham doesn’t have a low proportion of trips going to the City of Melbourne. Whitehorse and Monash both have less. Manningham sits around the average for the metro area.

      Sorry, but the Green’s document doesn’t offer the justification you cite – I think you probably read it in Tim Baxter’s comments (previous post). In any event, those are general benefits that apply to any rail line – I specifically asked for a justification for the Fitzroy/Carlton tunnel. Moreover, I specifically asked why it was preferred over other possible investments.

      The key question in all this is not the wisdom of improving public transport. We should all agree on that. Rather, it’s why this particular proposal rather than another. Why rail, why Doncaster, rather than (say) buses in the western and northern growth areas?

      • Itsumishi says:

        I’ll take your statistics at face value as I have no real knowledge of the numbers or easy access to compare them with. It is the logic that investment must follow demand that I disagree with.

        You can’t judge how many people will take fast, reliable public transport based on patronage of sub-par services that is only a real option for those without other options.

        It is true that Doncaster now has the DART service, but again this has been in operation less than a month, so judging passenger demand isn’t feasible as it’s going to take people more than a month to break habits, change jobs, move to the area, etc in large enough numbers to make any valid observations.

        “why this particular proposal rather than another. Why rail, why Doncaster, rather than (say) buses in the western and northern growth areas?”

        The obvious answer to why this plan and not others is that this plan for transforming the Eastern Suburbs. There are plenty of plans for other areas in The Peoples Plan. An Epping line extension to Mernda and Epping North; converting the freight line between Sunshine and Broadmeadows too allow electric passenger vehicles; an extension to Wyndham Vale; etc.

        Obviously not all of these are going to happen at the same time and priorities I’m sure would be dependant on a lot of factors (what plans will affect voting the most will always be an unfortunate factor), but this is by no means the Greens only real public transport plan.

        Perhaps the Greens Doncaster rail line plan isn’t the best use of available funds, it has however been proposed conditional to extensive community consultation, which is really one of the most important steps in any public transport planning and could obviously change the outcome quite a bit. Unlike the current Labor Government, the Greens seem to value real public consultation.

      • Alan Davies says:

        My numbers are all either from the Green’s plan itself or from the Government’s public VISTA travel survey data base.

        The 10% figure I used above was the proportion of Manningham residents who work in the city centre, not the proportion who use public transport to get to work.

        The share of these who use PT rather than drive would increase if a train line were provided (trains after all are nicer than buses) but by how much? Already around two third of all CBD workers travel by PT and most of the rest have company cars. Yes, at the margin some might change but essentially you’d be beating your head against a brick wall.

        And all those Fitzroy and Carlton residents (a high % of whom actually do work in the CBD) already have a pretty good tram service to get to the CBD. Why would you spend billions to give them a rail line too?

        The multi billion dollar Doncaster rail line does not maximise environmental, equity or economic outcomes. It would just be pissing money up against the wall (to use a colloquialism).

        There are far better uses for that sort of money (were it to become available). Quite frankly I would’ve thought (hoped) the Greens were above this sort of cynicism – shows you what a scent of power can do.

      • “And all those Fitzroy and Carlton residents (a high % of whom actually do work in the CBD) already have a pretty good tram service to get to the CBD. Why would you spend billions to give them a rail line too?”

        Again you’ve missed my point. The additional train stations are not primarily to increase the number of people who travel into the CBD for work from these suburbs. The primary purpose is to increase the overall percentage of trips to inner suburbs by public transport.

        As the Greens have pointed out inner suburbs hold a large percentage of jobs in Melbourne (20% of jobs in the Melbourne City Council Area, 33% of jobs within this and neighbouring councils, so roughly 13% of Melbourne’s jobs). Yet whilst only 29% of people that travel to the CBD for work do so by car more than 50% that travel to neighbouring suburbs for work travel by car.

        If connections are made simple, fast and effective you can expect the mode share for inner suburb workers to shift towards PT.

        There are also other benefits of creating new inner suburban stations.

        1) They will encourage higher density living in these suburbs.

        2) They begin to break away from the hub and spoke design of our current PT network, by allowing train lines to terminate outside of the CBD where passengers can transfer to other services. This will decrease congestion on the city-loop which benefits the entire rail network.

        Sorry for confusion by switching between my real name and online alias as well. Forget that I’m not signing in sometimes.

      • Alan Davies says:

        So Julian, if I’ve missed your point (for at least the second time apparently), are you saying that there would be more workers arriving at Fitzroy station in the morning than would be catching trains from it?

        BTW the proportion of all trips (irrespective of mode and purpose) originating in the City of Manningham that are destined for the City of Yarra is 2.4%.

        I would be interested to know where your figure of 29% for PT’s share of CBD trips came from, if you don’t mind.

      • The 29% figure wasn’t for PT usage.

        29% of people that work in the CBD travel there by car. More than 50% of people that work in the inner suburbs (in the report defined as those directly adjacent to the City of Yarra) travel by car.

        All the figures above are quoted directly from page 10 of The People’s Plan. I can’t verify their authenticity.

        Click to access The_People_Plan.pdf

        I didn’t say that more people would be getting off at Fitzroy Station than would be getting on (although I’d guess it would indeed be likely) I said the purpose of building a station there would be to increase the modal share of PT to these suburbs.

        Why do more than 50% of people that work in the inner suburbs travel by car when less than a 30% that work in the CBD do? The distance doesn’t explain such a big difference, but convenience does.

        Until we have a network that extends out of the CBD grid (I don’t mean individual services, I mean a network where you can make easy transfers, like you can in the CBD) these figures are not likely to change at all.

        The most infuriating part of not owning a car in this city is that virtually every trip not into or out of the city either relies on infrequent, confusing and poorly scheduled buses, or travelling into the CBD before heading back out.

        Fixing the bus services up would solve most of the problem and at a fairly reasonable cost, however given the number of journeys made into the inner suburbs (not just for work either!) and the nature of building a network, it’s well worth starting the process of expanding this network out of the CBD.

  2. jack horner says:

    “The Greens don’t estimate the number of users, all they say is that the City of Manningham has 118,000 residents and no rail line”.

    The population of Manningham is an irrelevant factoid. Local government boundaries have nothing to do with estimating catchment areas of public transport services.

  3. jack horner says:

    Completely agree with your plea for rational priorities in transport planning.

    Part of the problem is that something like the Doncaster train line, a big permanent piece of infrastructure, is more exciting and more picturable than ‘better urban fringe bus services’.

    Doesn’t the photo on the cover of the Greens plan – a train with ‘Rowville’ on destination board – make a PT supporter’s heart beat faster? How do you take a photo that shows the difference between an hourly bus service and a 15-minutely bus service?

  4. […] dealt with the shortcomings of this idea last week (here and here) so I’ll just look at a claim made in The Age that the City of Manningham has low public […]

  5. […] my review of the Greens’ Public Transport Plan for Melbourne’s East (here and here) some Green’s supporters have suggested that I should really look at the party’s broader vision […]

  6. Kay MacKinnon says:

    Interesting article. You are right, it is hard to justify the cost of this new railway, particularly with the proportionately higher cost with underground as opposed to overground.

    That being said I am in favour of the train line. I do not live in the area, but I have spent time catching public transport around the area.

    From a personal perspective I have lived in Melbourne for most of my life, living in many suburbs in the inner and outer south east, west and inner north. I have been catching public transport as my main means of transportation for over 15 years.

    I have also lived in Brisbane for a couple of years and travelled around Europe.

    Brisbane has a poor train network and therefore rely on buses to substitute because the bus infrastructure is cheaper to build. The city has grown and they continue building bus tunnels and roads for buses to keep up. It is getting to the point where the major bus stations are severely congested during peak hour. Buses just cannot take the same number of passengers as trains. Therefore I do not believe they are a good long term solution to a city which already has around 4x the residents of Brisbane.

    Europe is a great example of public transport. Their Metro system in their cities work because of their high density living (something which Melbourne should aspire too, rather than contributing to the urban sprawl by building McMansions in the outer suburbs and travelling to the city everyday). Trains often run every few minutes in European cities and are close together particularly the inner city. Europe also have the foresight to build infrastructure BEFORE the people come, whereas in Australia we tend to have it as an afterthought.

    I do agree that these outer suburbs should have better access to public transport, however Melbourne is a very large and spread out city and I believe would be better with more money invested in public transport, which can be better justified with higher density living spread over a smaller footprint.

    They can give the Eastern Freeway more and more lanes, however Alexandra Parade to Racecourse Road will just continue to become banked back.

    I am impressed with the extensive train network that Melbourne put in when population density was much lower than today, I believe this foresight amongst others has contributed to it being rated amongst the most liveable cities in the world. Cities such as Perth and Brisbane are lacking this PT network and will start to struggle as their populations increase.

    The inner city northern suburbs like Fitzroy would do well to have train stations for passengers whether they are getting on or off. When I lived there I used to walk to the CBD to work because it was just as quick as getting the quite slow tram. Look at Richmond station and North Melbourne station, such easy access to the city and beyond.

    I purposely have never lived in Doncaster and surrounds due to it not being serviced by a good PT system. I am sure I am not alone. Extending the tram line out might help people who are travelling shorter distances, because travelling from Doncaster to the CBD would take a very long time in peak hour.

    Melbourne’s population will continue to grow and therefore it is important to put this kind of infrastructure in sooner rather than later, with the foresight that was given in earlier days. There are train line connections which are no longer in use, which is disappointing because Melbourne has the opportunity to have a really well connected train system.

    Sure DART could exist as a short term solution, however sometimes I believe it’s just best to bit the bullet.

    I agree with you that the proposed route does not do it justice in regards to cost/benefit. I suppose they are taking the route of convenience to minimise disruption to exisiting residents who would potentially have the railway cut through their house, or end up next to a railway line. Therefore it means it’s inconvenient to many residents because the railway will not be near enough to them to justify using it.

    Then again I have utopian hopes of a great cyclist network of safe and dedicated paths too. These things are criticised for appearing to come out of the public pocket and go to waste, however healthier people cost less to tax payers in the long run. I also think travelling on a good public transport system with a book beats feeling stressed whilst sitting in traffic any day.

    Keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your articles as they are well written, interesting and thought provoking.

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